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The Diva Who Paid Her Dues

"A lot of people have asked us if she's based on Renee," Patchett says from her home in Tennessee. "If we're in a rush, we'll say, oh yeah, that's true." But, as Fleming points out, the author and the singer had not met when Patchett wrote "Bel Canto," and any similarity is probably accidental, any influence limited to the attraction a few Fleming recordings sitting around the author's house may have unconsciously exerted. Nonetheless, they've become fast friends, and Patchett's description of their friendship is almost romantic.

"We are women inclined toward friendship," Patchett says. "At the beginning of our friendship, we were both sort of amazed that the other one wanted to be friends. We started from a point of extremely strong mutual admiration."

"The beauty of the difficulties I had, early on, is that now, when something is a little funny or goes out of whack, I recognize it, and can usually fix it myself," says soprano Renee Fleming. (Universal Classics)

Patchett downplays her influence on Fleming's book: "Renee was fine without me, she is so smart."

Fleming emphasizes it: "I wouldn't have been able to get started. You can recognize her voice in some of the transitional material, and she organized the whole thing. Then I went through and rewrote it twice and put it specifically in my voice. It was a collaboration."

Taken together, the two books offer the myth and reality of the soprano. Patchett's soprano lives in a world of sexual allure and evanescent, musical communication; Fleming's soprano lives in a world of press agents and record contracts and brutal competition.

"It only made me wish that these two books had happened in the opposite order," Patchett says. "People with a romanticized notion of the voice are people who tend to be uninformed. I wrote 'Bel Canto' as an extremely uninformed person."

Listen to Fleming's new recording of Handel, and you hear the raw material from which the uninformed Patchett constructed the alluring fiction of Roxane. The second track on the new album, an aria from "Semele," begins with the words "Endless pleasure, endless love," which pretty much sums up the effect of the recording. Fleming has never sounded so at ease, so natural, as she does in this music from the 18th century. If you had heard her years ago, say in 1995 when she was first signed to a contract with Decca records, you might have thought the voice pretty but also a little glassy and pale. It was not a voice you could always pick out from a lineup. It had a generic feel to it, at times -- the generic feel that critics often decry in American singers.

Fleming gives no ammunition to her critics in the new book, but she openly acknowledges that her voice has come into its own, that it gets more interesting as she gets older.

"Some years back, I was consistently criticized for a certain blandness, or for carrying vocal values above artistic ones, which was probably true," she says in the book. She attributes the problem to singing too much difficult repertoire too early.

There were no doubt a lot of opera fans who admired but didn't love Fleming's voice until just over a year ago, when she finally sang the role of Verdi's Violetta from "La Traviata" at the Metropolitan Opera. It's a role that challenges the soprano voice from top to bottom: In one act it must toss off flurries of light, ornamental singing; in another, it must perform with a sharper, more penetrating focus; in other places, it must find the pure, elongated beauty of tone for which lyric sopranos are prized. She had sung the role earlier at the Houston Grand Opera, but the Met appearances marked a grand arrival. It was a dazzling and heart-wrenching performance, and a glimpse of the musical depth many doubted Fleming was capable of.

"Oh good," she says, bubbling for a moment when the triumph is mentioned. Then, like the Great American Soprano she is (graciousness is obligatory), she deflects the credit.

"Opera is a total performance. There are so many variables, it is almost impossible to achieve: the visual, the musical, the dramatic, there's even dancing, and we have to sing well, look well, and act our roles. We have to have chemistry and convince people we're in love. So those performances were one of those rare-gem, perfection kind of nights."

Fleming's arrival at greatness comes at a difficult time for opera singers. The recording business, which has gone through years of transition, no longer follows their every move and isn't interested in recording every triumph they may achieve in the opera house. Great American Soprano isn't the job it used to be. Fleming is sad that her Violetta, and other major roles, may never be captured in a studio.

"I don't think I'll ever have the opportunity to record it," she says. "The truth is, the labels aren't making studio recordings of opera at all right now. It's a little bit disappointing that so much of my repertoire won't be recorded in any way."

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